A Chinese court on Monday handed a four-year jail term to a citizen journalist who reported from the central city of Wuhan at the peak of the Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak on grounds of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, her lawyer said.
Zhang Zhan (37), the first such person known to have been tried, was among a handful of people whose first-hand accounts from crowded hospitals and empty streets painted a more dire picture of the pandemic’s initial epicentre than the official narrative.
“I don’t understand. All she did was say a few true words, and for that she got four years,” said Shao Wenxia, Zhang’s mother, who attended the trial with her husband.
Zhang’s lawyer Ren Quanniu said: “We will probably appeal. Ms Zhang believes she is being persecuted for exercising her freedom of speech.”
Criticism of China’s early handling of the crisis has been censored, and whistle-blowers such as doctors were warned not to talk.
State media have credited the country’s success in reining in the virus to the leadership of President Xi Jinping.
The virus has spread swiftly spread across the globe and has infected more than 80 million people and killed more than 1.76 million, paralysing air travel as nations threw up barriers against it that have disrupted industries and livelihoods.
In Shanghai, police enforced tight security outside the court where the trial opened seven months after Zhang was initially detained, although some of her supporters were undeterred.
A man in a wheelchair, who told Reuters he came from the central province of Henan to demonstrate support for Zhang as a fellow Christian, wrote her name on a poster before police arrived to escort him away.
Foreign journalists were denied entry to the court “due to the epidemic”, court security officials said.
A former lawyer, Zhang arrived in Wuhan on February 1 from her home in Shanghai.
Her short video clips uploaded to YouTube consist of interviews with residents, commentary and footage of a crematorium, train stations, hospitals and the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Detained in the middle of May, she went on a hunger strike in late June, court documents seen by Reuters say. Her lawyers told the court that police strapped her hands and force-fed her with a tube.
By this month, she was suffering from headaches, giddiness, stomach ache, low blood pressure and a throat infection.
Requests to the court to release Zhang on bail before the trial and to livestream the trial were ignored, her lawyer said.
Other citizen journalists who disappeared without explanation include Fang Bin, Chen Qiushi and Li Zehua.
While there has been no news of Fang, Li re-emerged in a YouTube video in April to say he had been forcibly quarantined, while Chen, although released, is under surveillance and has not spoken publicly, a friend has said.
Click here for the interactive graphic tracking the global spread of coronavirus.